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Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination

Author: Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008
Review Published: December 2009

 REVIEW 1: Viola Lasmana
 REVIEW 2: Jentery Sayers
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Matthew Kirschenbaum

My sincere thanks to Viola Lasmana and Jentery Sayers for their generous and careful reviews. I know that Mechanisms makes a lot of demands on its readers, and I'm always grateful to get confirmation that people are finding it worth the effort. While neither review calls for a rebuttal or "response" in any adversarial sense, I would like to take the opportunity to comment since the book has now been out for exactly two years this December.

When I wrote Mechanisms I was fairly confident that with the imprint of the MIT Press it would find an audience amongst scholars working in areas like new media and cyberculture studies. Two years later, I think of the book as part of a wave of mature work playing off of an initial indifference to (or outright rejection of) digital materiality, and then the subsequent absorption of that same term into the critical mainstream (notably through the early efforts of Johanna Drucker and Kate Hayles). Fellow travelers include recent books like Chris Funkhouser's Prehistoric Digital Poetry (Alabama 2007), Lisa Gitelman's Always Already New (MIT 2008), Terry Harpold's Ex-Foliations (Minnesota 2009), Rita Raley's Tactical Media (Minnesota 2009), and Noah Wardrip-Fruin's Expressive Processing (MIT 2009). I think Mechanisms finds especially close kinship with the work in Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost's Racing the Beam (MIT 2008), the inaugural volume in the MIT Press's new Platform Studies series. So my book, with its focus on storage and the inscriptive trace, is locatable somewhere in a spectrum of approaches to which we could also now add software studies and critical code studies. Yet even as the field of new media studies organizes and gets organized in this way, it's worth reminding ourselves that our propensity toward stacking and layering critical discourse alongside of the different elements of computer architecture -- platform, storage, software, code, interface -- is itself a historical artifact of the von Neumann model, and is thus not to be fully naturalized as the material base of either computation or criticism.

There was another audience that was equally important to me in writing the book: the group of fields encompassing textual scholarship, bibliography, and the history of the book. I was fortunate that my graduate training at the University of Virginia exposed me to these from almost the very start of my career, and even more fortunate that it happened at a moment when textual scholarship itself was being revitalized by new digital tools and methods. Scholars working in these seemingly narrow and specialized domains had, it seemed to me, arrived at insights that were light-years ahead of the then-current debate in new media and electronic textuality. So I was keen to produce a book that might do some bridge-building between the two communities, all the more so because of already tantalizing connections between them (I often wondered whether Norbert Weiner, growing up in the house of a philologist, had been exposed to the work of a bibliographer like W. W. Greg). I wanted to write a book that would to have something to say to the reader of Adrian Johns as well as the reader of Lev Manovich, to the reader of Thomas Tanselle as well Donald Knuth. (In some ways, this move felt reminiscent of George Landow all the way back at the beginning of his big yellow Hypertext, where he polls readers to see who's familiar with a list of poststructuralist theorists and who's familiar with another list of computer scientists.) That the book has clearly found its readership among the membership of organizations like the Society for Textual Scholarship and the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing is therefore especially gratifying, and if Mechanisms can inspire further work on new media from within these communities I will be first in line to cheer them.

Of course any book as topical as Mechanisms runs the risk of being overtaken by events. I was already aware that the Agrippa story would have an afterlife since it was continuing to mutate even as the book was going to press. As described in the Appendix (an eleventh hour addition which the MIT Press thankfully indulged), as I was reviewing my galley proofs I was unexpectedly contacted by "Rosehammer," the pseudonym for one of several individuals who I had been able to locate at the center of the poem's "hack" back in 1992. The Appendix sets forth a number of clarifications and additional details that resulted from this contact, notably the location of the hack at the Americas Society rather than the Kitchen in New York City. More significant, however, was the promise of access to new primary source materials, including the video of a complete run of the poem that Rosehammer and his confederates shot at the December 9th "Transmission" and used as their basis for their transcription of the text later that same night. While that footage could not be recovered in time for the book's publication, it was located thereafter and that story, along with a successful emulation of the original self-destructing program created by imaging a collector's copy, is told here. One point I want to emphasize: the crucial role that the network played and continues to play in the work's ongoing transformission. Had I not posted several pages from my manuscript to Alan Liu's Agrippa Files Web site, the contact from Rosehammer would likely never have occurred. Likewise, the availability of the Agrippa Files as a whole was the direct catalyst for the collector's offer to lend one of the original diskettes for analysis. The reciprocal dynamic between these hybrid channels of publication is thus one more "mechanism," and a bracing reminder of the power of network effects.

There has also been new technical research and other current events, which I have tried to document on the book's blog. One of the more notable is new findings concerning the efficacy of secure data erase procedures, suggesting that the number of "wipes" required to render a disk unreadable may be as few as just one. This would seem to mitigate against some of the book's more dramatic claims about the "impossibility" of ever achieving complete data erasure, but Mechanisms does acknowledge that for most practical purposes it's relatively easy to render data unrecoverable; nor do the new research findings detract from the implications of electronic data's remarkable propensity for proliferation which (along with its staying power) is at the center of my claims regarding magnetic storage as a medium.

Both Lasmana and Sayers put their finger on a key dimension of the book: its emphasis on methodology and at times even pedagogy. Lasmana notes an "exigent need" within digital textual studies for a "revamped method of study that fosters a robust and thick textuality, a redefinition of words like 'virtual' and 'archive,' and a re-engagement of digital textual studies as an interdisciplinary field that includes knowledge of textual encoding, textual histories, bibliographical methods, the humanities." Sayers asks, very much to the point, "[H]ow Kirschenbaum's blend of computer forensics with textual criticism might alter the everyday practices of humanities scholars, including where we work, what our objects of inquiry are, and what we publish. Or better yet: how might the forensic imagination, as a counter-point to a medial ideology, shape our interpretations?" Both of the observations seek to take the measure of the book's practical import, including its implications for curricula and training in scholarly research.

If anything, over the last two years I've become even more adamant about the necessity of retooling in fields like textual studies and literary research. While the major case studies and examples in Mechanisms are the byproducts of the wired avant-garde, as I have argued elsewhere nearly all literature today is born-digital in the sense that it is composed electronically, on a computer, with a word processor or text editor. Salman Rushdie (several of whose computers are now in special collections at Emory University) says the following in a 1995 interview:

[The Moore's Last Sigh] is the first book I've written on a computer. And I had to teach myself. I wasn't particularly attracted to it, was quite happy with my typewriter. Having switched, I can't understand why I didn't do it before. Just at the level of writing, this is the best piece of writing I've ever done and I'm sure one of the reasons for this is the removal of the mechanical act of typing. I've been able to revise much more. [1]
The implications here go beyond matters of style or an individual writer's work habits. As authors -- like the rest of us -- live fuller and fuller digital lives, libraries and archives are confronted with foundational questions about what to collect and what is or isn't in their purview as a repository of an author's "papers." William Gibson, for example, tweeted his admiration for the latest Pynchon to some 10,000 "followers." Alice Walker now has a blog. Building on my experience working with the Michael Joyce collection at the Harry Ransom Center, Mechanisms has moved me into much closer relationships with the archives community than I ever would have imagined. The reason is that the Joyce material at Texas is not so much anomalous as (soon to be) normative. As literary collections come to consist more and more of hybrid assemblages of physical and digital matter, any scholar working on a writer living and working right now will have to learn something about the opportunities and challenges of digital collections and curation. The magnetic force microscope may not replace the Hinman Collator, but text analysis and visualization tools, along with hex editors and emulators, just might [2].

Thanks again to the reviewers, and thanks above all to David Silver for RCCS, a resource that's been essential reading for more than a decade. The community of scholars here owes David a huge debt of thanks for his long advocacy and support.

  1. Interviewed by Amrit Dhillon, 30 September 1995, India Today, 136-39. Quoted in Conversations with Salman Rushdie, ed. Michael Reder (Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2000): 172-3.

  2. An NEH-sponsored white paper laying out some of these issues, "Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use," is available here.

Matthew Kirschenbaum


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